The unique differences between humans allows for a stunning array of specialists in athletic activities. The physical differences between elite NFL players and marathon runners are easy to point out, yet both sports allow for the individual athlete to focus mostly on doing one or two things. Mixed martial arts, by its intrinsic nature of combining striking with grappling and clinch work, tends to force a broader focus from its athletes and we see less and less true specialists as the sport evolves before our eyes. However, Rousimar Palhares has been doing his level best to buck that trend as an incredibly effective submission grappler.
What makes one defensive lineman more successful at pressuring the quarterback than another or one swimmer faster than another is harder to tell. Jevon Kearse is an absolute physical specimen as he was 6'4", nearly 270 pounds and gifted with speed and athleticism that NFL coaches dream about. However, the 5'10", 240ish pound Elvis Dumervil might end up the far better player due to his incredible motor and leverage. The immense torso, somewhat diminutive legs and rubber-like ankles of Michael Phelps allow him some advantages over most of his competitors, but his drive, admirable stroke technique and work ethic are what puts him on Olympic medal podiums and American cereal boxes. Phelps is built and trained to swim like a merman. These examples show that developing and optimizing both the mental and physical aspects is what defines success (which brings the desired fame and fortune) at the elite level. During his chase of professional success and fortune, Rousimar Palhares has worked hard to combine his attributes into a dangerous limb-breaking attack that has shown to be extremely difficult to slow or shut down.
More Rousimar Palhares Judo Chops
While working his way out of impoverished conditions most of us will never experience, Rousimar built an unusual physique with an immense amount of muscle packed onto a smaller-than-usual-middleweight frame and tailored a submission grappling game that works perfectly for his physical attributes. In creating and refining his MMA game, Palhares has built a road of wrecked limbs violently seized upon and arranged carefully to point towards the middleweight title shot he desires. The right leg of Mike Massenzio is the most recent addition of that road and Palhares seized the submission in impressive fashion at UFC 142 - and in a time barely encompassing two minutes of action.
Below the jump, an examination of how Palhares clamped upon and exerted such torque on the leg that Massenzio, a JuCo national champion and Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt, was left helpless and tapping will be laid out for your perusal. Also, the Gracie Breakdowns are extremely fun and technical, but Ryron and Rener missed a couple of details in their look at this particular leglock.
Lest I be accused of denouncing the game of an ADCC 2011 silver medalist, I make it fully clear that Rousimar Palhares is a world class submission grappler and Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt. The man likely knows far, far more about every submission, sweep, pass and guard retention trick than I do. At the same time, I can say with confidence that the stubby arms of Palhares probably make guillotines more difficult than they would be for Jake Shields and the massive legs may not be as conducive to triangles as those of Kendall Grove. However, Palhares is built to enrich orthopedists worldwide. He wants an arm or a leg and his compacted frame and awesome core strength makes him superb at applying limb-breaking torque to either extremity.
This general pattern is borne out by Palhares's MMA bouts and submission grappling matches. At the 2011 ADCC trials, Palhares cut the preambles and went straight for the takedown and the leglock. To the best of my fading recollection, he did not go for a guillotine and triangles may have featured very briefly, if at all, in his matches. Exactly one of Palhares's eleven submission victories is not an armbar or a leglock (a rear naked choke secured his win over Helio Dipp back in 2007).
Going into the bout with Mike Massenzio at UFC 142, most people knew that Palhares would be gunning for the leglock. Massenzio undoubtedly spent a good deal of his camp drilling escapes and working on his posture in order to avoid even being put into the leglock. Rousimar still found a novel way to apply one of his terrifying heelhook and won a Submission of the Night bonus as well.
All GIFs courtesy of Grappo.
About one minute into the bout, Palhares shoots in for a double leg takedown. Massenzio starts to sprawl and swim for the underhook, but Rousimar reverses direction at an unexpected time and begins to fall backwards while sticking his feet underneath Mike.
As Palhares falls backwards and to the left, Mike wants to base out and maintain posture. Massenzio plants his right hand on the ground and spreads his legs apart to support his weight better. Rousimar's right foot curls upwards and he establishes a butterfly hook on the underside of Mike's left thigh. The momentum of the fall allows Palhares to use the butterfly hook to push his opponent further over, which prompts Massenzio to disengage from the hook and put his left knee to the ground - without pulling his torso back in alignment. Palhares uses that opportunity to lift his right leg high up Massenzio's back, as if he was going for an armbar. As an experienced submission grappler, Massenzio knows that the armbar is coming and bails forwards and upwards. At the same time Palhares raised his right leg for the armbar, he also snuck his left leg around Massenzio's right leg and his foot approached Massenzio's right hip. Thus, the trap was set.
As Mike bailed outwards and upwards, he knew that the armbar was escaped and that he had a decent shot of foiling the follow-up leglock also - if he could get out fast enough. He jumps and pulls hard enough that Rousimar is lifted entirely off the ground, but the leg does not come free. Palhares has chopped his left leg over the right hip of Massenzio and clamped his left elbow down to his latissimus dorsi muscle. The bending of the leg and Rousimar's odd physique allow this grip to be powerful enough to affix that leg firmly to his side.
From then on, it takes Rousimar one second to shift from having the grip to cranking the heel hook. A second after that, Massenzio taps. He cannot work his way out by rolling to loosen the grip as Andre Galvao did in the 88 kg finals at the ADCCs in Nottingham nor can he shift Palhares to a kneebar and pull backwards to free himself like Dave Branch did at UFC Live: Sanchez vs. Kampmann.
To see how quickly Palhares put it all together, here is another GIF with different timing that encompasses the whole sequence.
Ryron and Rener do a great job of explaining why leglocks are so damaging, which is why T.P. Grant incorporated their work in his look at Rousimar's leglocks in the build-up to UFC 142. To sum up, the heel hook causes twisting of the foot and ankle joint, which transfers torque to the knee through the tibia and fibula, which can cause the knee to be wrenched out of alignment. This type of leglock is considered to be very serious, due to the multiple joints under threat of injury and the tendency for grapplers to not feel pain or significant pressure in their knees before something critical tears or gives way. Palhares is so good at achieving leglocks in MMA that Masakazu Imanari might be his only true contemporary - and Imanari has not nearly the single-minded ferocity or physique of Palhares.
Against Dan Henderson, Palhares uses a similar transition in the first round. After a failed shot, Rousimar falls back and Dan follows him in. Eventually, Rousimar goes for an armbar and Dan defends by getting up. Palhares uses the momentum to immediately invert and swing over for a leglock. Hendo has great submission defense (recall the Shields fight from Strikeforce or the legendary match with Shogun) and steps back out without any serious problems.
If you have the time and the curiosity to see how Palhares uses the armbar/leglock trap to set up some truly dazzling sweeps, watch the Rise of Toquinho video below.
The first moment of particular note to those curious about the leglock sequences Palhares uses would be from 16:32 to 16:35 in the video. Watch as Palhares uses his legs to generate enough momentum to get inverted and then use his brute strength and stubby arms to flip his grappling opponent heels over head. The sequence is flashy and impressive as all get out, but is not why I draw your attention to this video.
Future opponents should work on immobilizing those shifty hips, as Miller did, and bailing out backwards, as Henderson did. Or even changing their first name to "Daniel".